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10/30/2010

One year ago: Claude Levi-Strauss

October 30, 2010 |  6:00 am

Levi-starussClaude Levi-Strauss was a French philosopher who is widely considered the father of modern anthropology because of his then-revolutionary conclusion that so-called primitive societies did not differ greatly intellectually from modern ones. He died one year ago at age 100.

Levi-Strauss' years spent studying tribes in Brazil and North America led him to the conclusion that the myths and cultural keystones of primitive peoples revealed an intelligence no less sophisticated than that of Western civilizations. Those myths, he argued, all tend to provide answers to such universal questions as "Who are we?" and "How did we come to be in this time and place?"

The philosopher and sociologist was briefly a warrior when World War II broke out and Germany invaded France. When his country was defeated and occupied, he gained employment at a school in Montpellier, but was soon fired because he was Jewish.

He lived in the United States for the rest of the war, working for the New School for Social Research in New York and serving as a cultural attache in the French Embassy in Washington. He returned to his home country after the war was over, earning his doctorate in anthropology at the University of Paris in 1948.

He had become a leading influence in France by the mid-1960s, though by the 1980s his ideas were being supplanted by those of the so-called post-structuralists, who argued that history and experience were far more important than universal laws in shaping human consciousness. More recently, however, his views have come back into popularity.

For more on his journeys, thoughts and influence, read Claude Levi-Strauss' obituary by The Times' Thomas H. Maugh II.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Claude Levi-Strauss in 2005. Credit: Pascal Pavani / AFP/Getty Images

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